The Middle Township High School girls basketball team will play in its third South Jersey final in four years tonight.
Once again, the Panthers will be the underdog.
But there's one big difference this year. For the first time, Middle will play the sectional final at home.
Delran (22-5) plays at Middle (23-5) for the S.J. Group II title at 7:30 p.m. today.
"We've been the underdog all year," Middle coach John Leahy said. "Our kids have gotten use to it. It doesn't bother us."
Delran, the No. 5 seed, is ranked No. 8 in The Press Elite 11. Middle, the No. 2 seed, is ranked 11th.
"I hope it's an advantage," Leahy said of playing at home. "We should get a great crowd. We play well at home. But we know Delran is a really, really good team. No matter where it is, we're going to have to play well to win."
Delran reached the final with a dominating 56-35 semifinal win over perennial power Willingboro on Saturday.
"Delran is very balanced" Leahy said. "They have a nice mixture of size and speed.."
Middle, as usual, relies on defense. The Panthers allowed 29 points to Bridgeton, 18 points to West Deptford and 24 points to Sterling in their first three playoff games.
Middle's demise in past S.J. finals hasn't been defense. The Panthers
Lauryn Fields has averaged 13 points for the Panthers during the playoffs.
"It usually comes down to whether we can limit our turnovers and score enough points," Leahy said. "Delran is too good for us to ground out a game that is in the low 30s. We're going to have to find a way to score in the high 40s and maybe in the 50s to win."
In its last game before the state tournament, Middle lost to Sacred Heart 47-24 in the Cape-Atlantic League tournament semifinals.
The Panthers used the defeat as motivation.
"We got a little bit of rest. We got healthy. And that we're playing at home (in the state tournament) gave us a confident feeling," he said.
Contact Michael McGarry:
S.J. Group II championship
Where/when: 7 p.m. today at Middle Township
Radio: 98.7 FM
What's next?: The winner advances to Wednesday's state semifinal against the winner of tonight's Central Jersey title game between Pt. Pleasant Borough and Summit.